The Revolutionary Humor of John Lennon

Rafael Senra
8 min readMar 29, 2017

In his career, the beatle turned your rude little jokes in a sophisticated and brave sense of humor.

A few years ago, for many comedians, the proliferation of “politically correct” ideas took them sleep away. Now, in a post-Charlie Hebdo world, a fundamental question returns to the agenda: what would be the limits of humor? All this inspired the present text, where I try to approach life and career of John Lennon, a figure who even doesn’t is a comedian, but that had the scorn and the laughter as frequent ingredients in his artistic raw material.

Among the four Beatles, John always seemed to be the most adept at distilling in his songs and performing samples of an effective, yet very acidic mood at various times. The Paul McCartney songs has always been marked by lightness and optimism, but however how brilliant composer he was (and is), the musician never had humor as such a strong element. George Harrison, in turn, composed songs whose lyrics revealed great pearls of sarcasm and irony, such as Awaiting On You All, Sue Me Sue You Blues, Horse to the Water, etc. — but all these would only come years after the Beatles ended in their solo career. And Ringo was a figure who had good doses of humor in his performances, albeit involuntarily.

Most of the time, Lennon’s preferred target was himself, projected in several letters that portrayed a character not very heroic and much less idealized. When did decided to make jokes about someone besides himself, he bravely chose his targets. There are great songs making fun of political, military, religious institutions, the Queen of England, the American President Richard Nixon, or famous musicians such as Bob Dylan and even partner Paul McCartney. On the other hand, he spared and even made a fierce defense of the rights of representative minorities, such as women, blacks, homosexuals, etc.


But it was not always so. In the early stages of The Beatles, John was not as politicized or condescending in the cuties. In “Girl”, for example, he sings the main lyrics, while the chorus of background voices hums the word “tits” (breasts) over and over again. A subtlety, but it carries a certain amount of machism, and adds to several stories of frame that showed a young Lennon little attentive with the needs of the women, either in the personal aspect (the women with whom he related, or his first wife, Cynthia ), and in the collective (involving feminist rights and demands). He just assume a more feminist attitude after meeting his second wife, Yoko Ono.

And if that sounds offensive, it’s important to remember that John performed even more embarrassing and narrow-minded episodes of humor. At the band’s early shows, one of their favorite stage features was imitating disabled people and people with mental problems. As revealed by the other three Beatles and old footage in the Anthology documentary, John squirmed in some more lively moments of the concerts, bent his mouth, hands and legs, teasing laughter from his bandmates and part of the audience, no matter if this would be offensive to anyone present. Wisecracks like these can be taken as samples of a naive mood, which, on the other hand, do not make them harmless.

Power to the People

Despite some questionable examples, over time John would refine his style of humor, starting with his stage presence. In November 1963, while the Beatles performed at a charity show called Royal Variety Performance — whose guests honored important figures such as Queen Elizabeth I, the princess, among other celebrities — Lennon told the audience:

“For our last issue, I wanted to ask for your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap you hands. And the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewellry”.

Jokes with figures and institutions linked to powerful people was a thing explored by John on a number of occasions, such as in Cry Baby Cry (on Queen) or in Sexy Sadie (on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). And when the Vietnam War breaks out, John got involved in another humorous episode involving royalty. In 1969, he decides to return the MBE to the Queen, and he goes until Buckingham Palace personally to do so, delivering the following letter:

“Your Majesty, I am returning my MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the bid for Nigeria-Biafra, against our support for the Vietnam War and against the downfall of ‘Cold Turkey’. With Love, John Lennon “.

Still in 69, after being proclaimed personality of the year by Rolling Stone magazine, some critics decided to make a joke with the posture of Lennon and Yoko in favor of the peace, electing him like “clown of the year”. And behold, he answers in the act:

“Part of my policy and Yoko’s is not to be taken seriously. And we’re humorists, we’re Laurel and Hardy, that’s John and Yoko. And we stand a better chance under that guise because all the serious people like Martin Luther King and Kennedy and Gandhi got shot. We’re willing to be the world’s clowns. I’m proud to be ‘The Clown of the Year’ in a world where serious people are killing themselves and destroying them in wars like Vietnam. “

John and Yoko giving an interview in 1969.


From the beginning of the Beatles, one of the most interesting humorous features used by Lennon was to make puns with popular words and expressions. This can be noticed in several of his songs, especially in the most creative and psychedelic phase of the Beatles, such as Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, I Am the Walrus, Glass Onion, etc. One of his main inspirations was Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and Alice in the Land of Mirrors. With Carroll, a skilled writer in the art of puns and word games, John sharpened his lyrical vein in this direction. While venturing into literature in his books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, his texts revealed a great ability to explore the syntactic and semantic possibilities of words. (read thisRandolf’s Party”, write by Lennon).

Lennon’s “trocadilhescas” skills can already be detected in the big idea behind the band’s name — a play in which the word beetles was spelled “a”, alluding also to the word “beat” “, Or dialoguing with the beat movement, etc.). Although the references to the name “Beatles” were fairly obvious, John’s justifications for creating it were similarly hilarious: in some interviews he would have said that he dreamed of a mysterious man, carrying a flaming pie, and telling him in a Cavernous voice “you will be ‘Beatles’ with ‘a’”. Until now, a mystery surrounds this version. It is possible to read the declaration of the flaming pie as a mockery of the messianic discourse familiar to so many politicians or religious. However, many people, like Yoko Ono, argue that this is the true story behind the band’s name. Was it a mystical and premonitory dream, or was it the world that did not understand the joke?

When we think of the ethical implications of humor, the pun emerges as a very interesting resource. Unlike the view that the best mood should always be offensive, puns do not involve a depreciation of anyone. In fact, some people define humor as something tragic, depending on the need for someone to suffer a calamity. But another definition takes the humor as an unexpected connection between different facts — just like a surprise element that arises from different meanings. I think puns seem to show that, when it comes to humor, the unexpected character seems to prevail over the tragic.

The Niggers of the World

On blacks, women, and gays, who are often the targets of mad comedians, Lennon insisted on publicly interceding for these segments. Earlier in the Beatles, John defended the band’s manager Brian Epstein, a tormented homosexual who, despite his managerial talents, would eventually die from an overdose of insomnia.

Soon after Epstein’s death, Lennon assumed his relationship with Yoko Ono, possibly the main responsible for amplifying and contextualizing the humanistic vision that he already developed in intuitive way. The politicized position that John and Yoko assumed involved a bond with the demands of less privileged sectors of society. From there, the songs and statements of John and Yoko are intensified, defending the rights of women, blacks, immigrants, etc. In his controversial album Some Time in New York City, 1972, Lennon composed songs that are practically declarations of his own on some of these themes, such as Woman is the Nigger of the World — whose title already, of face, simultaneously deals with the question of the Women and blacks. Two prompts appearing again in songs like “Angela,” about Angela Davis, a Communist militant who was part of the Black Panther party.

Lennon by Lennon

But the preferred target of “lennonian” humor in his career was … himself. John knew, like no one else, to make fun of him, and expose unglamorous aspects of his own personality. In songs such as Help or Strawberry Fields Forever, his intimate approach was tempered by anguish and nostalgia. However, there are several other songs in which the beatle seemed to laugh at his own rotten ones, like his constant laziness (I’m Only Sleeping or I’m so Tired), or the fact of feeling like a loser (I’m a Loser) , and even the public persecution she suffered from dating a foreigner (The Ballad of John and Yoko, or Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey).

In his life and career, John Lennon has always used humor to demystify any institutions and figures whose power could be oppressive in some way. And he used this demystification mainly in relation to himself or the Beatles. In most of the interviews he gave, he tried to massacre several attempts to become a legend. Journalists and fans were constantly trying to see him as a special guy, almost a totem, but he used the humor how one of the ways he could humanize himself, and also destroying the pedestal where so many insisted on putting it on. Unfortunately, the brilliance of John’s artistic message did not come down to a particular subject, who, unable to understand his sense of humor, engaged in a fanatical sacrification of Lennon, something that would cost the artist’s life. After all, just as there are bad humorists in the world, there are also misunderstandings — even when it comes to something as direct and universal as the ideas that the former Beatle sang and practiced throughout his life.